Return to Westeros: “Sons of the Harpy” Review

Has there been a week in Westeros where this doesn’t apply?

everythingawfulYou know what’s really terrifying about the expression “Winter is Coming?” It means that winter is not yet here. Westeros creaks under a civil war which has destroyed most of the countryside, dragons rise in the east, and the White Walkers are returning, but this is still late autumn. This is still November.

Pictured: November

Pictured: November

Game of Thrones is about power, but it’s equally about government. It’s hard to translate medieval politics to the present, but the show has consistently sided with order over chaos, even if the order was flawed. This critique is sharpest when it focuses on personal ambition, the kind of destruction wrought by Lannister greed and Baelish scheming, but it extends out, too. Daenerys continues to face fallout from her reformist agenda in Meereen, and Stannis’s insistence on his legal and moral authority to rule has led to still more bloodshed.

The natural state of man, according to Thomas Hobbes, is “nasty, brutish, and short”. Whether short-shortsightedly pursuing individual gain or pressing a personal conception of the greater good onto the world, uncontrolled humanity is always at war. The Leviathan was published in 1651, after the medieval era in Westeros had passed, but Hobbes was still informed by the politics and divisions of those chaotic times. The War of the Five Kings winds down, but still more death hangs over the horizon. Something will need to end this nasty and brutish era. Hobbes was a bitter pessimist—his only solution was to create an absolute sovereign to dominate all factions. Like it or not, he may have identified a problem in Westeros.

In King’s Landing, Cersei feels her power draining to House Tyrell. Margaery Tyrell wields more influence over King Tommen than she does, and Mace Tyrell’s money is the only thing that may keep the monarchy afloat. She reinstates the Faith Militant, hoping to gain a private army while undercutting Tyrell prestige with the arrest of Loras Tyrell, whose same-sex attractions are not tolerated by the Faith. Tommen pleads for Loras’s release, but neither Cersei nor the High Sparrow show any willingness to hear him out. Cersei claims a lack of authority, and the Sparrows spurn their king as he faces shouted insults from the gathered crowd. Power is flowing out from the center in King’s Landing itself, somehow creating new faultlines in an already-broken world. But Hobbes doesn’t sit on the small counsel, and he can’t stop a sovereign from ceding power and creating more chaos. A chill is coming to the capital.

Meanwhile, things go no better in Meereen. The Sons of the Harpy—a paramilitary force devoted to the old, slaver order—continues its terrorist campaign against Daenerys, claiming her high lieutenants Barristan Selmy and Grey Worm. Dany has never shown an interested in devolving power; rather, she rules with absolute power and belief in her own righteousness. Yet chaos is still the result. The problem in Meereen is still one of legitimacy. Hobbes does not look for his sovereigns to be omnipotent conquerors, such as the Targaryens, but recipients of a voluntary cession of power from the people. Dany walks the wrong side of that line, so that even if her rule is just and wise, she is still a usurper, taking power only by right of conquest and without the consent of the governed. No matter how terrible they are. The darkest night of winter may still be in the future.

On the third front is Stannis. He has proven himself to be a forceful leader (executing Mance Rayder, among others), but with an underlying sense of fairness. He spares Davos Seaworth more than once, and leans hard on Jon Snow but does not resort to subterfuge or force. His claim to the Iron Throne is legitimate, as the true heir of Robert Baratheon.  Robert was the only true leviathan on the Iron Throne. His Targaryen forebears forced the Seven Kingdoms to bend the knee because of their military prowess, Robert took the throne by popular acclaim—Stark, Tully, and Arryn all pledged their fealty to him by free choice, four votes against the three of Lannister, Martell, and Tyrell. But even the latter three ultimately joined peacefully. Only thus is a sovereign created, and perpetuated by strict, legal succession. It’s why Ned cared so much about keeping Joffrey from the throne, oh so many years ago.

That being said, Stannis is an unloved warrior, and faces incredibly desperate fights ahead. It is not certain that he will survive long enough to take his throne, or command fealty from his vassals. But he’s not the end of the line.

shireenbaratheonStannis isn’t a man who shows a lot of tender moments, but he breaks for a moment this week, declaring his devotion to his young daughter Shireen, treated as a leper because she contracted greyscale as a baby. Normally a death sentence, Stannis tells Shireen how he fought to save her, and how he marshaled the medical, magical, and scientific understanding of the realm to halt the spread of the disease.

Stannis does not waver in his loyalty to his daughter, and if he wins the throne, she will rule much longer than he ever would. She is enormously intelligent, well-read, and kind, but she may still lay a claim to absolute loyalty from all in the Seven Kingdoms. She inherited the Targaryen blood from the Baratheon line, qualifying her as the prince who was promised, and she could also be the younger queen who is prophesied to cast Cersei down. While her greyscale ostensibly defies the prophecy that Cersei’s successor would be “more beautiful” than she, it would be a mistake to believe that conventional attractiveness can be read into such prophetic words.

Still, such an outcome remains a long way off—if Shireen takes the Iron Throne, it will be the end of winter, not the beginning. Winter is still coming, and chaos still rises, and things keep getting worse. This season is a dark one.

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